City of Athens
It could have been another dull Tuesday. Yet, the day would go down in history as the day she murdered both her children.
Despoina Lemoni stood motionless, trapped between the dirty oven and the empty fridge; trapped in a life she no longer wished to live. The house phone hung by her side, slightly swinging by its faded-yellow, twisted cord. She could not bear to hear another word. The menacing voices roaming around her mind’s darkest corners were enough noise.
‘What’s wrong, Mummy?’ her three-year-old daughter asked, lifting her head out of her Minnie Mouse coloring book. She sat, cold and hungry, leaning on the worn-in kitchen table, wondering why her mother was sad, day in, day out. A pale ghost of a being that was once her mother. Lina raised her voice and finally caught her mother’s attention.
‘Nothing,’ Despoina mumbled in reply, scared of the wild thoughts being born inside her head. She had not yet digested what her husband had just revealed to her.
Lina looked across the table at her infant sister. At least she always smiled at her. The nine-month-old baby happily banged her pink rattle upon the checkered blue-and-white vinyl tablecloth; both colors unable to hide the stains of ketchup, oil and other condiments that had fallen to its surface over the course of the last few months.
Five months had passed already since Despoina lost her house.
‘Lost my house!’ she grumbled. She hated that sentence. ‘I did not lose my house. The bank took it away.’
Despoina gazed up and for a few serene moments looked out of her narrow basement window at the feet rushing to work on the cement pavement above; the dark clouds forming adding to their haste. Black shoes, brown shoes, flats, high heels all zoomed by her trembling, watery eyes. She craved for a job to rush to. Her Monday whining at work seemed ridiculous now. ‘‘You never truly appreciate what you’ve got till it’s gone,’’ her Nanna used to say. Now, Despoina realized how right she was.
Soon, fat drops dived out the grey sky and fell to the deteriorating neighborhood below. Despoina had dragged herself to the front door, and for some reason stepped out into the rain. She used to hate getting caught in the rain. The cold water sank deep into her beige blouse, while her blood seethed beneath her icy skin. All around her were signs depicting prosperity long gone. Closed shops, rundown buildings, dead trees, and piles of trash.
‘Fucking crisis,’ she said, the words marinated in anger and sorrow. Her fingertips ran across her face, her nails cutting into her olive complexion. Bloody rivulets quickly blossomed. She stepped back into her home, slamming the squeaking, begging-for-a-paint door behind her.
In automated ‘mother-mode’ she spent the rest of the evening cooking chicken nuggets and rice for her and Lina, bottle fed Antonia, bathed both girls, dressed them for sleep and put them to bed.
‘Mummy?’ Lina called out, watching her breath turn into a shadowy cloud, stopping her mother as she rushed to switch off her light. ‘Can you tell me a fairy tale, Mummy?’ she asked with hope.
‘There’s no such thing,’ Despoina replied and left the room, mumbling how there would never be a happy ending.
Despoina raised her head high and wiped away her tears. She exhaled deeply, sure of what she had decided was needed to be done. She ambled into the kitchen and opened the top wooden cupboard, taking out a bottle of cheap, red wine. Two years ago, she would not have even used it in cooking. But that was then, and this was now. No more wine-marinated octopus and fancy food for Despoina.
Both she and her husband heard the terrifying words that petrified every parent with a mortgage. ‘‘We are going to have to let you go’’.
Despoina fell back into her ripped armchair, pushing her dying-for-a-dye blonde hair over the top of its burgundy back. She brought the wine to her lips as she turned on the radio. Love songs and rain. She always loved the combination. With eyes forcibly shut, she daydreamed of moments lived, yet vanished into oblivion. Paradise lost. That’s what the Greeks had, according to her.
Window-shaking thunder startled her. She had dozed off. An hour had passed since the last drop of fruity wine. Brought-up religiously, Despoina had no doubt about the eternity of the soul. Life on earth was a mere blip on the line of our existence.
‘It’s for their own good. I will not have them eating trash and being ridiculed about their father...’ she whispered, lifting herself out of the rocking armchair.
With slow steps, she approached the kitchen sink and splashed frigid water upon her sallow face. She dawdled back to her children’s door. Each step was harder to make. In her trembling right hand, she held her heavy pillow. Without another bedroom in the hole-of-a-house, she slept on the living room sofa.
Her hand froze upon the shiny door knob. Despoina closed her eyes and sighed as she quietly opened the door. The lone light came from a Disney princess night lamp. Placed on the floor between the bed and the cot, it cast a dim, pink glow; just about enough light for Despoina to see her sleeping babies. She sat by Lina and gently caressed her hair; her mind splicing heavy knots in her alcohol-filled stomach.
‘I love you, my beautiful,’ she managed to utter, her throat clogging up. The pillow came down hard on Lina’s small face. The young girl awoke, unable to breathe. Despoina kept both hands on the pillow and pushed down, while looking away. Soon, the girl’s kicks ceased, and silence returned to the dark room.
Three hours to bring her into the world and three minutes to take her out of it.
Antonia was next and in less time, followed the fate of her lifeless sister.
The first rays sailed from the timid, winter sun and reached the bedroom window, forcing the darkness to shrivel into shadows. The two dead girls lay in their beds. Eternal sleep, offered by the hands of the woman that brought them to life. Down the narrow hallway, another body sat against the chipped, riddled with mold wall.
Despoina had loaded her husband’s hunting rifle, prayed to the Lord for forgiveness and brought the cold gun barrel to her quivering chin. She closed her eyes, and as her last tear journeyed down her cheek, Despoina found the courage to pull the trigger. A film-noir fan, she always joked about how she wanted to go out with a bang.
The police found her with her head blown open, yet with a smile permanently frozen on her. The wall behind her was sprayed with crimson blood and parts of her tormented brain. She hated that wall. Poetic revenge, she would have called it.
The neighbors gathered in shock and watched as the paramedics carried out the tiny lifeless body of Antonia, the body of the happy girl next door – Lina’s golden locks blowing in the wind out from beneath the white sheet-, and the bloody body of the woman who would haunt their everyday conversations. They were also struggling. The economic crisis had brought them all to their knees. Despoina’s acts of death caused daily riots and fueled the anger against the government’s strict austerity program. Her murderous ways were analyzed by ‘experts’ of every kind. Newspapers, news, blogs all featured the story.
But, like every tragedy in history, it became exactly that. History. People moved on to the next hot topic of the month, and new austerity measures kept being announced.
Valentina stared at her phone’s screen in amazement. Her alarm was set to go off in just nine minutes. Great. Dear brain, thank you! Thank you for keeping me up all night thinking of things that I worry about all day.
She rubbed her tired eyes as the illuminating light from her cell died out and pitch black governed the room once more. Sleepily, she kicked back the heavy, mint-green quilt, hoping to fight off the drowsy heat invading from the wall radiator. Turning to her side, her hand brushed against Alexandro’s bare back. She still could not get used to having a man in her house, in her life, in her heart. She hugged his naked body from behind and breathed in his ‘man-smell’. She never could find the right title for it. He was her first; she had no other ‘naked, sleeping man smell’ to compare it to. She gently laid her lips upon his neck and reluctantly slid out of the king size bed. She tiptoed to the door, avoiding the parade of her shoes in front of the wooden wardrobe. She needed to take nothing. She had taken her make-up, clothes and shoes into the living room, the night before. Alexandro worked late, interrogating suspects in a case involving manslaughter at a nightclub while she was on duty with the crack of the Greek dawn. Being a parking enforcement officer was as boring as it sounds, yet Valentina did not mind the long shifts in all weather conditions, handing out tickets and arguing with vexed Athenian drivers. She was in the big city, away from her rock-of-an-island, and she had the whole package. An apartment, a job and a man.
Forty minutes later, a uniform-wearing Valentina walked out the front door; her platinum blonde hair rolled-up into a bun, her lips graced with bright-red lipstick and her stomach filled with two pieces of bread, covered in Nutella, and a sizzling hot, milky coffee.
She locked the stained chestnut, fiberglass door and sighed. Before her eyes, once again hung a metallic six. Valentina turned the number upright again and pushed down with force. Apartment nine’s only issue - the unscrewed number.
‘Let’s remind Alex, once again, to fix it,’ she whispered the mental note, her mind laughing at the image of the mug she had bought him on a weekend escape. ‘When a man says he will fix it, he’ll fix it. No need to remind him every six months,’ was written in bold, black letters across the large, white cup.
Not so far away, in the neighborhoods on the other side of the Parthenon, I was also creeping out of my apartment. Nothing worse than the fury of an awoken-before-her-time American, short-fused spouse.
I stood in front of the dirty, hall mirror. The reflection staring back at me was finally one that caused me to smile. After a long two-year battle with cancer, I had started to gain weight –not too hard taking into account my undying love for street food and red meat; my color had returned to a healthy Greek white, and short, thin, brown hair had appeared back on my scalp, helping to shake off the unattractive image of my egg-shaped head. Most bald men look sexy; I looked like Humpty Dumpty’s not-so-well-known, Greek cousin.
Ioli Cara’s phone call had abruptly popped my dream bubble - me standing between Messi and Ronaldo, celebrating with our fans, the top three soccer players in the world. Age fifty and still certain dreams remained the same. Though, back then, it was Maradona and Platini by my side.
‘Sorry, boss, for waking you. I just got the fax from Interpol. The old guy had hidden property across Greece. All under fake names. Typical businessman avoiding taxes. There is a remote mansion in the meadows of Rhodes listed. Remember how his wife mentioned that he loved Rhodes as a child and that is why he built Anastos Tower by Rhode’s port? I’m thinking if Scrooge is hiding out somewhere, this is the place. If he is not there, he is abroad. With money like his, he would need no passport.’
‘You talk too much. How long have you been up?’
‘An hour or so. Babies don’t feed themselves, you know? Icarus has a Cretan appetite and an inner clock more precise than a Swiss watch,’ she replied laughing.
‘Okay, okay...’ I had replied, jumping out of bed and rushing to the bathroom. Safe from Tracy’s icy looks, I told Ioli to arrange the police ferry.
‘Wait. Are we not sending local police? Is it worth us going out there on a hunch?’
‘The fresh sea air will do us good. Besides, even if he is not there, we have no warrant. I’d rather it be just the two of us.’
‘So, we enter illegally, Captain Costa, Mr. Moral, Papacosta?’
‘Well, if there was a suspicious sound coming from within...’
Ioli laughed again, and a light cry was heard from her infant son. ‘Oh, no. The monster is moving. I’d better get out of here. Leave him to Mark. See you at headquarters,’ she said hastily and the phone went silent.
Our case was not exactly homicide-team material, but three point seven billion to your name gets you attention. The chief placed half the task force on the case of the missing billionaire. Thanasis Zampetides, Greece’s shipping tycoon, aged seventy-two had vanished. His children reported him missing in a matter of hours. That was forty-three days ago. Most presumed the worst. The chief wanted no ‘fuck-ups’ as he so elegantly put it. He had the minister’s office breathing down his neck, and he wanted to make sure that if the old guy’s body turned up, his best officers were on the case.
Weeks of searching by police and private investigators, and unlimited airtime and press space offered zero results.
Ioli’s gut instinct had always helped us solve cases in the past. Ioli felt certain that Mr. Zampetides, for reasons unknown, was taking time away from his hectic world of running Greece’s largest shipping company. Having read through his biography, and after interviewing his wife, she was sure that the missing billionaire –as a free spirit, a child of the 60s- was somewhere relaxing. The police had eliminated the possibility of kidnapping as the security cameras showed him leaving his Athenian skyscraper alone and no ransom demands had ever been made.
To be completely honest, though intrigued by the mysterious lack of evidence, I did not deposit much of my time into the case. I had a pile of paperwork to attain to before my paper tower surpassed Piza’s as the world’s tallest leaning tower, I had two court appearances to prepare for, and I preferred cases closer to home. The butchered homeless man behind Omonoia’s square was far more deserving of my attention.
Ioli though needed to silence her gut. She began investigating places the billionaire could be. And with her known determination, fast forward forty-three days later, and we were set for the spear-shaped island of Rhodes.
The crisp winter night succeeded the short, rainy winter day and Valentina returned home, hungry, exhausted and soaking wet.
‘What a shitty day,’ she said as she kicked off her black shoes, offering much-needed relief to her swollen ankles. ‘That’s how honest money is made, Valentina,’ she mimicked her father’s deep bass voice. New to the force, she was the lowest ranking officer on traffic department’s totem pole. With the austerity measures holding back any hope for new recruits, she knew well that long shifts and busy streets would always be assigned to her. She also knew that in today’s Greece having any sort of job was a blessing, so Valentina kept her whining to herself.
Closing the heavy door and leaving the outside world behind her, her eye caught a glimpse of a shiny, magnolia envelope that lay on the scratched, laminated flooring. Bending down, she picked it up and flipped it around. Fancy, bold red letters covered its side.
‘The mystery weekend experience of a lifetime,’ Valentina read the smaller subtitle. The next line though was the one that caught her attention. ‘Congratulations! You have won a FREE stay. Please open.’
Valentina’s red nails slid into the paper, ripping the envelope open.
‘Congratulations,’ the letter wished once more.
‘You are holding one of the thirty random invitations to the grand opening of Hotel Murder. This is an ambitious project, looking to make its mark on Greece’s tourist map. A remote hotel, with five-star amenities, upon a majestic Greek Isle. With multiple actors and a devilishly, cunning mystery, it is destined to entertain you.
For our first weekend, we have decided to offer thirty lucky winners a FULLY FREE stay. No strings attached what-so-ever. No hidden charges. Free transfer from Rafina port, free stay, all meals and drinks 100% free, and free participation in the mystery. All we want is your opinion.
So, what are you waiting for? Bring your PLUS-ONE (also FREE – yes, the boss has gone crazy!) to Rafina port on Friday 2nd of December, 16:00 sharp. Return to Rafina, Sunday night.
Still a disbeliever? Too good to be true?
Call for inquiries: 01 3478 9812.’
Valentina read the letter twice. Too good to be true’
She placed the envelope on her prized possession, an antique coffee table, similar to the one her Nana had in the house she grew up in, back on her home island of Folegandros. She rubbed her shoulders and walked into her bedroom. A hot, steamy bath was all she could focus on for the time being. She shed off her work clothes and slid into the shower. Water dangerously close to boiling point attacked her skin, providing warmth to her body. She spread coconut shower gel across her neck and chest, sniffing the mesmerizing aroma.
Fifteen minutes later, she drifted into the kitchen, comfortable pyjamas covering her relaxed, slender figure. Now, all she needed was a good, strong Greek coffee to complete her after-work nirvana. With the blinds up, Valentina curled up on her bright magenta sofa and, with her coffee entrapped between her warm fingers, she stared out at the rain. Soon, the first sips travelled down her, warming her from the inside. Unwound, her attention fell to the Hotel Murder invitation.
Alexandro would love it, she thought. Men and their mystery stories!
She must have heard over a dozen times, Alexandro’s retelling of how he cracked the case at a murder/mystery dinner in England while visiting a cousin. He was only eighteen at the time. Now, a homicide officer, she could picture him diving in and analyzing everything. She thought the whole idea sounded corny, but then again, the things women do for their men. And with that thought, she guzzled her hot beverage and took her phone into her hands.
One beep, two beeps... ‘Hello?’ a fruity, youthful voice came through the receiver.
‘Er, yeah. I found an invitation under my door... Hotel Murder?’ she asked.
‘Congratulations! Welcome to an experience of a lifetime...’
And the horrific acting begins, Valentina could not resist thinking and interrupted the eager-to-inform employee. ‘Yes, yes. So, it’s completely free?’
‘One hundred percent, ma’am. Just bring your invitation and if your invitation specifies it, your plus-one. The ship will be expecting you at 16:00 sharp, Friday 2nd of December.’
‘Yes, I’ve already read that part. What island is the hotel on?’
‘That is part of the mystery,’ the surely-under-twenty-five-year-old man said.
‘You serious? We won’t know where we are heading?’ Valentina said, bringing her knees up to her chest, placing her cold feet under the couch pillows.
‘Rules of the management. They want to avoid people intruding the weekends. The storyline begins the moment you set foot on board. It will be an amazing...’
‘Yeah, yeah. I’m sure. Okay, count us in. What details do you need for the reservations?’
‘None. Just bring your invitations. Your identities and back-stories will be provided by a member of staff. See you on the dock next Friday. We are dying to meet you. Pun intended!’
Oh, God. And the nightmare begins’
Alexandro and his muddy boots came home an hour later. Valentina stopped him at the door with a passionate kiss and a warning about his footwear.
‘Mmm, what smells so freaking good?’ he said, his droopy, Greek nose opening its narrow nostrils like a hound dog on a mission. ‘My baby been cooking?’ he inquired as his arms reeled her closer and his wide hands explored her rear.
‘You wish. After the day I’ve had, you’re lucky I got up to greet you,’ she replied, the corners of her lips travelling upwards. ‘I ordered pork chops from that tavern you talk about more than me...’
‘Meat Castle?’ he interrupted her, his voice climbing the decibel scale fuelled by excitement and an empty stomach.
‘That’s the one,’ Valentina replied as she was raised up into the air. Alexandro lowered her gently and laid a forceful kiss on her slightly cracked-from-the-cold lips. Nothing that a few drops of virgin olive oil could not fix; Valentina remembered her mama’s home remedy.
‘Love truly does pass from the stomach,’ she said and laughed as Alexandro rushed to the wooden IKEA table.
Valentina enjoyed their dinner time - her favorite time with Alexandro. A workaholic and a ‘gymaholic’, his appetite was greater than any man she had ever met. She watched him over their candle-lit meals as he relished all sorts of meats. Valentina was not very fond of the kitchen, while he was an able cook. The nights he did not ‘create’ –his verb for his cuisine masterpieces- Valentina prepared something simple along the lines of spaghetti or burgers, or ordered from an array of choices. Neither of them was a fussy eater. With delight, she witnessed him calm down from his hectic day and smiled as he retold his daily adventures; she even laughed at his rather unamusing jokes.
Finally, plates were licked clean, and the last drop of Merlot travelled down his throat.
‘I’ve got another surprise for you,’ Valentina said, and an enigmatic smile came to life below her round, glover-green eyes.
‘What’s that, babe?’ he replied, relaxed with his voice tone carrying the vast satisfaction his body was experiencing.
‘Next Friday, you and I, a murder/mystery weekend on an island. What do you say to that, mighty detective?’
Alexandro tilted his head slightly to the right and studied his girlfriend with the same manner he ‘read’ suspects down at the station.
‘You for real?’
‘Realler than your love for Olympiakos,’ she replied, unable to control her high-pitched laughter. ‘God, talk about murdering proper grammar.’
‘That’s, err, great,’ he said and got up to take his vacant plate to the sink.
‘Why so unenthusiastic?’ Valentina inquired, picking up the hesitant color in his words.
‘No, no, Don’t get me wrong. I just... well, not to sound like a party pooper, but can we afford this? I mean, Christmas is just around the corner, and I paid for all that shit to be fixed on my car last month...’
‘Ssshh,’ Valentina said, walking over to him and placing her index finger on his moving lips. ‘You worry too much. Stress will be the death of you. I know our financial capabilities well. I won this weekend. It is completely free.’
His face lit up and his eyes opened wide. ‘Seriously?’
‘Yep, all-inclusive. Will not cost us a dime.’
Valentina swore that all the neighbors heard his cowboy yell of celebration and the loud kisses he placed on her lips and neck.
An hour later, Alexandro exited the shower, dried off and remained naked as he climbed into bed next to her. Valentina kept her eyes glued to her romance book, yet could not concentrate on the words blurring up before her. She knew well what was coming. His hands teased her by invading under her bedtime T-shirt. She turned to look at him. She loved that goofy expression; his mischievous grin upon his flushed face. He knew all her buttons. In seconds, Nora Roberts fell to the floor, followed by her underwear and purple T-shirt. His tongue, travelling from her belly upwards, sent shivers down her spine and shook her inner core. Though her only lover, Valentina believed they had great chemistry. When in her, she felt sexier than any romance heroine. Later, she drifted off to sleep in his broad arms, beaming and content. Soon, both departed for dream land and visions of a spectacular and bewildering mystery weekend came to life in their mind’s inner cinema.
With relief, I felt the police ferry swirl upon the restless Aegean Sea and gradually come to a halt, gently hitting its side upon the soft, pitch-black, truck wheels hanging from the cracked cement pier. The ‘non-tourist’ pier needed no color nor decorations. Used only by local fishermen and the coastguard, it paled next to its big brother, the impressive harbor of Rhodes; welcoming some of the world’s largest cruise ships.
The calendar read December, and both harbors stood relatively silent. The mayhem of summer was a distant memory set to replay all over again in a few months.
My feet settled on solid ground. My stomach took longer. The icy winter breeze of the sea caressed and chilled my skin. I breathed in the fresh air and smiled as Ioli jumped off the ferry and landed beside me.
‘What’s wrong, boss? Sea nausea?’ she asked, her hands fixing her silky, black hair back into a high ponytail. ‘I hope not. You’re scared of planes; I need you to cope with ferries,’ she continued without waiting for a reply.
‘Yeah, yeah. Tease the old guy. The sea was rough, today. I love the ferry, don’t I?’ I asked, turning to comically stroke our trusted boat.
Ioli refrained from commenting, rolled her eyes and paraded down the deserted pier.
‘How’s little Icarus doing?’ I managed to ask, short of breath as I ran to catch up, closing my brandy-brown jacket right up to the last button. The last thing I needed was a cold.
‘The little terrorist of love has put us in Christmas-mode. Can you believe it? Me. Decorating the house with bright lights, putting up a tree and buying him a shit-load of toys?’
‘It happens to the best of us,’ I replied with a smile. ‘I know you hate the whole jolly season, but deep down, you secretly crave for it. We all do, and a kid is the perfect excuse.’
‘The woman next door said the same. She misses her kids as babies. Kids grow faster than weeds, she said, and just like weeds, they find themselves in places they shouldn’t be. Just wait till he begins to walk, she warned me. Oh, the joys that await me,’ Ioli continued, rather out of her normally quiet self. I guessed long hours at home, alone with an infant makes you chatty.
Ioli was still talking about her son as we entered the rental-car shop, located next to a closed-for-the-winter ice-cream parlor. Further down the quiet street, an alluring cafe with its chairs situated between two burning-bright fireplaces was the only other shop with signs of life. A hot-chocolate mixed with coffee sounded divine. Maybe on our way back.
The senior lady behind the tall, glass counter welcomed us with a bored grunt of ‘Good morning’ and with a push of her sleeper-wearing feet, she rolled back with her office chair towards the wall decorated with numbered car keys. Watching her fill in the needed paperwork was duller than watching olives being picked by my Aunt Toula. With a flat line smile on her downcast face, she handed us the necessary key and a few unnecessary words of advice on how to drive safely.
‘Giving birth took less time,’ Ioli joked as she sat in the passenger’s seat and cracked her knuckles. Shortly, we were driving through the old, dark-ages-built part of the city of Rhodes. The impressive castle walls ran up to the cloudy sky on our left while deep, dark blue sea filled our view to the right.
‘Jelly baby or gummy bear?’ Ioli asked, waving her two small bags of candy. She had already eaten two by the time she offered me one.
‘Neither, thanks,’ I replied, still searching for my favorite radio station.
‘Can you see the village?’ I asked Ioli as I stopped at the next T-junction. Multiple signs stood before us, the letters hard to read due to sprayed-on football slogans. An unwanted gift by the local hooligans.
‘There,’ she replied, pointing at the metallic tree of road signs. ‘Kamiros Skala, thirty-one kilometers. Turn right.’
Ioli sat with her hands folded in her lap and her gaze focused on the sun rays dancing upon short-lived, loud waves. My attention remained on the narrow, country road unfolding before my tired eyes. Late nights and early mornings were not something my five-decade-old body was willing to put up with. At least, continuously. I never did have trouble sleeping. Even through my life’s plentiful stressful situations, I slept like a cub in its mother’s paws. Now, with nothing major to bother my mind, I seemed to find it impossible to turn off the voices and fall peacefully to Morpheus’ land. I don’t know about sheep, but I can number the lighting-shaped cracks on my bedroom’s ceiling and walls. I could even number the times I felt guilty for craving a cigarette. All. I quit so many years ago and still yearn to feel a bud on my lips and smoke journeying down my throat. But a promise is a promise. I swore to my daughter that I would never smoke again and with her in Heaven watching down on me, I would not let my sleepless boredom win and disappoint my Gaby for a harmful, brief pleasure. I thought about pills. I thought about drinking. Both dangerous ideas with my addictive behavior.
‘You’re awfully quiet, today.’ Ioli’s smooth voice interrupted my galloping thoughts.
‘Just tired, I guess,’ I replied as I turned off the main artery and entered a neglected country road. A few scattered houses broke the natural background of stubborn, twisted olive trees, wheat fields and trees filled with bright-yellow lemons. No souls lingered on the neglected sidewalks or in the flower-filled gardens. The smoke twirling out of the brick chimneys revealed that their tenants hid from Boreas’ icy blows. The thin mist gathering in the valley was not inviting either.
‘Can I take a wild guess on the house of Thanasis Zampetides?’ Ioli asked with a grin and a raise of her thin eyebrows.
A country manor stood out of the rest. At least, the part of it that was taller than the brick wall and the sky-reaching pine trees that were planted on the inside, along the wall. The impressive gate still looked grand, though rusty. No smoke exited from the four chimneys that came into view as I brought the rental to a halt, feet from the gate. Ioli opened her door and paused at the sight of shallow muddy puddles.
‘Let me hop out and open the gate...’ I began to say, ready to put the gear into P.
Ioli slightly shook her head. ‘No, Peppa Pig’s got this. At least, it isn’t raining.’
I watched as she plodded among the watery minefield and pushed back the heavy gate with ease. I slowly drove up beside her and waited for her to wipe her navy-blue Jodhpur boots with a lavender-scented baby wipe. The broad gravelled driveway sliced the vast, neglected garden into two. The mansion, though in better condition than the surrounding grounds, showed signs of abandonment. The hot summers in alliance with the cloudy, rainy winters had attacked viciously the house’s once-white paint. The wood-work suffered, also.
‘You still sure we are going to find something here?’ I dared to ask as I stepped out of the car and approached the wooden front door.
‘Only one way to find out,’ she mumbled in reply and pressed the doorbell button.
An irritating buzzing sound echoed from inside the house. We waited in silence. Ioli pressed again.
‘What happened to nice, friendly ding-dongs?’ I commented upon hearing the awful buzzing sound once more.
‘Okay, a walk around the house it is,’ Ioli said and trudged off, checking every window as she went. Each of them, tightly locked. I rubbed the frost and dirt off the windows, yet nothing was visible inside. Thick, burgundy curtains hid the stomach of the house well.
Thunder called out to us, warning us of the intentions of the gathering clouds above. Sunlight weakened, and shadows grew stronger. Thankfully, the back porch door was unlocked. Ioli took the cold handle into her leather glove and pushed back the door.
‘Oh, for the love of God...’ Ioli said, covering her nose. The musty air carried a putrid scent. A shadow moved with speed upon hearing her footsteps. Ioli cursed again and jumped at the sight of the dead-rat dangling from an alert cat’s blood-dripping mouth. The Bengal cat took one cautious look at us and vanished in seconds from the study.
More rattling noises were heard from inside the manor.
‘More cats?’ Ioli whispered and placed her right hand upon her firearm.
‘Let’s hope so,’ I said and called out, ‘Hellenic Police. Is anybody, here?’